Tag: Grace

What Has Dominion in Your Life? – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 4A (Romans 6)

 

12 Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. 13 No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. 

15 What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, 18 and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 19 I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification. 

20 When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. 22 But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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                Whenever the words slave or slavery appear in Scripture, we should wince. We must be careful not to do anything with these words that would justify North American slavery and its legacy because that legacy is still with us. We do not live in a post-racial society. The election of a black man didn’t suddenly change our nation. To say that “all lives matter” is to miss the point. Racism is still alive and well in America. So, anything that might justify or rationalize the servitude of a particular people is simply unacceptable. It’s with this warning that I venture into this reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, which speaks of being a slave either to sin or to God.  

 

We need to remember that at the time when Paul wrote this letter slavery was a dominant form of life in the First Century Roman world, with as many as two-thirds of the residents of the empire being slaves. Not all forms of slavery the same. One could be a slave and work in the salt mines or one could be a tutor to a wealthy family. Some slaves were forced into this life and others sold themselves into slavery. We should also remember that a significant number of early Christians were themselves, slaves. So, at least some of the recipients of this letter were slaves. So, it’s not surprising that Paul used this image to present his message of dominion.  

 

                This reading for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost continues the discussion of the power of sin that Paul has been working with in previous verses and chapters. He has told the Roman church that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). He wants them to know that the Law can reveal their sin, but not free them from it. Their only hope is Christ. In the opening eleven verses of Romans 6, Paul makes it clear that to be in Christ is to die to sin. He uses baptism to illustrate his message. He tells the Roman Christians that when they were baptized, they died to sin, even as Jesus buried. Then as they rise from the waters of baptism, they share in the resurrection of Jesus. Thus, in baptism, they move from death to life. To be baptized is to be dead to sin. That is, to be in Christ is to be dead in sin and alive to God.

As we turn to verse twelve of chapter six, Paul changes metaphors. Now the question is—who or what has dominion over our mortal bodies. Paul tells the readers that now that they are dead to sin and alive to God they shouldn’t “let sin exercise dominion over your mortal bodies. It’s here that turns to the metaphor of slavery but notice that it is assumed that one has the freedom to choose the nature of one’s slavery.

                Here is where things get tricky. There were different forms of slavery in the First Century, none of which were race-based. Slaves might be prisoners of war or the spoils of war. These were not voluntary forms of slavery, but one could sell oneself into slavery either for economic purposes or to advance one’s social status by serving someone of importance. This was common for tutors and other scholars. Nevertheless, to be a slave was to lose one’s freedom, even if entered into voluntarily. Thus, Sarah Heaner Lancaster writes that “all the restrictions and dangers of being someone else’s property apply as equally to the willing slave as to someone enslaved by force. Just so, misusing the freedom that grace provides by voluntarily obeying sin makes one no less a slave to sin” [Lancaster, Romans, p. 114].

                Instead of turning yourself over to sin, to let it have dominion over your life, turn yourself over to God so that your bodies might be instruments of righteousness. There is the freedom to choose, but it’s the freedom to choose the nature of one’s slavery. It is either being a slave to sin or a slave to God. It’s a question of allegiance in many ways—sin or God.  So, what is the advantage of giving dominion over to God rather than sin? Truth be told, sin often seems more attractive, but Paul suggests that the domain of sin leads to shame. In other words, Paul is drawing on the cultural understanding of honor/shame to define sin’s hold. Of course, to enter Christ’s domain means leaving behind a world that defined honor to join one that in the eyes of the broader culture might connote shame. Paul just turns things upside down and suggests that by choosing God’s dominion, one chooses the long-term gain over the short term. When one lived under the dominion of sin, one may have done things and behaved in certain ways that they now would be embarrassed about, even if those items were perfectly legitimate in the previous life.

Paul wants them to know that the choice is theirs. They can choose to let sin have dominion, but it will lead to death. Or, they could let God have dominion, and that leads to life. Or as Paul puts it in another well-worn verse: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).   

 

Dead to Sin, Alive to God — Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 3A (Romans 6)

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. 

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

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                When I play Monopoly it’s always helpful to obtain at some point a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. You never know when you’ll need it. When it comes to spiritual things, sometimes we treat grace similarly. Maybe you’ve seen the bumper sticker: “I’m not perfect, just forgiven.” That may be true, but it’s a sentiment easily abused (usually by the person driving the car, who cuts you off almost causing an accident). That’s why Paul told the Corinthians that while all things are lawful, not all things are beneficial (1 Cor. 6:14). Here in Paul’s letter to the Romans, we read about the power of sin and the power of grace. Paul makes it clear that we have been justified by faith through the grace obtained through the death of Jesus. Death, Paul writes in Romans 5, came to humanity through sin, but life comes through Christ, who overcomes sin through his own death. But if grace is so powerful that it overcomes death, why not sin all the more so that grace has an opportunity to work its magic in our lives. As Luther declared: “sin boldly” (I don’t think Luther had libertinism here, though).   

 

                Grace is not, in Paul’s mind, a license to sin. It is instead an invitation to restart our lives by moving from one realm (sin) into another (grace). Paul isn’t naïve. He understands the power of sin to gain dominion over our lives. He may not have used the term systemic in relation to sin, but he understood that sin was a power that was present in the broader culture/society. Think here of racism. Why is it so prevalent in our society? Why do we find it so difficult to break free of its hold? If it was just a knowledge thing, we could break free so easily, but it runs so much deeper than that. To be in Christ means dying to that old realm where a system, like racism, continues to reign. Grace is the starting point, but it’s not the endpoint. So, to be in Christ means dying to the old realm and being resurrected into a new life that is under the dominion of Christ. Of course, if we open the door to let it sin back in, it will make its home in our lives once again. So, no, we should sin so that grace might have greater opportunity to display itself.

This leads us to baptism as that point wherein we die to sin and are raised to new life in Christ. It is the point at which we exchange allegiances. As Sarah Heaner Lancaster notes: “Exchanging one dominion for another requires a change of allegiances. To continue in sin would show that one has not changed allegiances” [Lancaster, Romans, p. 107]. In other words, to rise to new life in Christ means that you can’t live as you once did. That old life marked by sin, by rebellion against God’s rule, has been left behind.

This change of identity is embodied in the practice of believer baptism by immersion. By being buried in the waters of baptism, we die to the old life. As we rise from the waters of baptism, we leave the old life behind. In the ancient church, baptism followed a lengthy period of teaching (Hippolytus in his Apostolic Tradition spoke of a three-year process), after which one was baptized. In those services, in which one often stripped off one’s old clothes before entering the baptismal pool, one would be asked to renounce Satan, before being buried in the waters of baptism and then given new clothes upon the exit from the baptistry. Our processes are not nearly as intensive as was true in the early years of the church, but the imagery remains powerful. In baptism we are buried with Christ, leaving behind the old life of sin, before being raised to new life, again with Christ, so that we might share in his resurrection.     

 

                We can’t sin so that grace might abound because if we’ve been baptized into Christ, we have died to sin and raised to new life. Therefore, neither sin nor death has dominion over our lives. Yet, we know, that in real life sin keeps tugging at us. It’s why churches often provide prayers of confession. It seems we need to die to sin anew each day. I know this is true of my own life. In part, this is because even if I have given allegiance to Christ in baptism, I still live in this world where sin rules. Karl Barth recognizes this challenge to our continued engagement with sin. He writes that “because and so long as I live in the body, I remain the old man, and am wholly and indissolubly one with him. Therefore the death of the old man and dissolution of my identity with him also involves the doing away of my union with this body. As the new man, I live no longer in it: as determined by time and things and men, I exist no longer” [Barth, Romans, p. 199]. We may have changed our allegiance, but as long as we experience this body of ours, we will be subject to sin. We can move toward that new life, as we change our allegiance, but truth be told, we will continue to wrestle with sin. We might not be as beholden as we were in the past, but it’s still there. The difference, is we struggle with sin, but no longer do we live in bondage to it.

                To quote another bumper sticker that is also easily abused, “please be patient, God isn’t finished with me yet.” That is true. Sanctification is a process, a movement toward the full embodiment of God’s grace. That being said, imperfection is not an excuse for sin, including racism and homophobia. In the end, we are called to consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ. Thus, if we live by faith, then as Barth notes: “faith means seeing what God sees, knowing what God knows, reckoning as God reckons” (Romans, p. 206). This is the new life in Christ.  


Image attribution:  Baptism in the River Jordan during pilgrimage, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55206 [retrieved June 14, 2020]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flickr_-_Israel_Defense_Forces_-_Christian_Pilgrims_Celebrate_the_Epiphany_in_the_Jordan_Valley,_Jan_2011_(1).jpg.